Saturday, July 23, 2011

Game Review: Dragon Age II - J.D.

Game: Dragon Age II

Developer: Bioware

Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X

Released: 2011

Reviewer Platform: Microsoft Windows

Introduction

First things first. I would like to extend a formal apology to anyone in my life who may depend on me for anything whatsoever. It’s just that when Bioware releases a new game, I am compelled to play it. Don’t tell them this, though, if they knew they had effectively direct access to my bank account, they would quickly ruin me. Melodrama aside, however, it is safe to say that I was, at the very least, excited about Dragon Age II before it came out. It is also likely an understatement of most prodigious proportions. This feeling of expectancy continued until the demo was released mere days before the release of the game. By this time, the game had been so preordered, that it probably violated some sort of time continuum law. The demo however, changed my feelings toward the game mostly for the worst. For some incognizable reason, Bioware decided to turn the opening sequence, and also, one of its worst sections, into the demo. So vast were the changes wrought upon the series since the first installment, I believe I suffered from a minor case of shell shock. While I could have cancelled my pre-order, I chose to give Bioware the benefit of the doubt. I should probably mention that I am a HUGE Bioware fan-boy, so overcoming this pang of trepidation was no great feat. Suffice it to say, threat inappreciable or not, I’m glad I did.

The Story (Spoilers)

This is not a sequel in the strict sense, as it takes place mostly concurrently with the original, and with a few notable exceptions is only loosely connected to the original. Fleeing the Blight, which was overtaking Ferelden at the time, the main character, Hawke, decides to take his family to Kirkwall. Kirkwall is located to the North in the Free Marches, not much is said of the city, other than having a brutal and bloody history. Hawke’s mother left the life of luxury as a noble of the city to marry Hawke’s father, an apostate, which is basically an unregistered or illegal mage who was from Ferelden. He died three years prior to the beginning of the story, leaving the care of the family in Hawke’s hands. This being the case, Hawke’s mother figures that they can get a welcome and a home safe away from the blight in her family’s house. On the way, one of Hawke’s siblings (depends on the player’s class) dies fighting an Ogre. Regardless, the family, joined by Aveline, who they met on the road, and who would also become one of Hawke’s truest companions over the next three years in which the rest of the story takes place, eventually make their long way to Kirkwall. Upon arriving, they realize that they are not the only ones with the same thought. The city is full to bursting with Ferelden refugees, and it is then that they find out that not only will they not be allowed to enter, but also the Amell, (Hawke’s mother’s maiden name) family is in ruins due to the financial mismanagement of her brother, Gamlen. Seriously, can’t uncles EVER do anything right? Thankfully, he has a plan to get the family into the city. Depending on your fancy, Hawke, and his remaining sibling either join a group of smugglers, or up with a band of mercenaries. End prologue.

The stage has been set. The rest of the game will be set within the confines of Kirkwall, and the surrounding areas. While not really a problem in itself, it does mean that it lacks the epic scale that its predecessor enjoyed. Not including the prologue, the game is separated into three “acts”, each building on the events of the one before. The first act starts light-hearted and innocuous, however, as Hawke’s fame begins to grow, so does the ever growing pile of problems you face. Each act, beginning approximately 3 years after the previous, ups the ante, as it were when it comes to what is at stake not only for the hero and his companions, but also for the whole city and all of its denizens. Unrest, political and cultural, tensions rising among the populace, these factors set the table for catastrophic events. These events take place in the form of worst case scenarios not once, but twice, and it falls to Hawke to save the city both times, earning him the title of “The Champion”. The master-stroke? The whole story is told after the fact from the perspective of the dwarf Varric, one of Hawke’s friends and companions throughout the story, who was being subjected to an inquisition of sorts. It would seem that the Chantry suspected that Hawke had some hand in creating all of the trouble Kirkwall saw over the course of the 9-10 years he had been there.

You might think that I have spoiled the whole story by now, but don’t worry. Also, stop being such a whiner, you chose to read this review. Anyway, I really haven’t spoiled anything. You will see the events coming long before they actually do. I don’t think this is predictability, necessarily, merely the inevitable coming to fruition. Plenty of things will also happen which you won’t be able to precognize. Of this I am sure. It’s the mark of great storytelling, and this game certainly possesses that. It’s this aspect of their games which keeps true fans of Bioware coming back. Dragon Age II was no disappointment. Origins was, and still is, one of my favorite game of all time. I played it four times, and I still feel like I’ve left something unfinished. As such, I was skeptical of any game’s ability to eclipse the quality of its story. I was proved wrong, however. Dragon Age II’s story is every bit a match for Origins, and in some cases, even surpassed it. It earns a near perfect 9.5 out of 10. Minor repetition, and a cast of some rather unlikeable characters are its only flaws. Even so, when compared to the video game industry in general, the characters are of surpassing quality. It is only when they are viewed through the biased eyes of someone who has played, and more importantly, immensely enjoyed, every game Bioware has put out in recent years, that the characters in Dragon Age II become…subpar. All else aside, I am a self-proclaimed connoisseur of great stories, and I can safely say that this one was one of the best I have ever read, played or seen.

The Gameplay

I have one word to describe the gameplay: polish. The level of polish this game sports has seen only rare exposure; it, like Bioware’s other famous sequel, Mass Effect 2 (review possibly forthcoming) just felt done. As if, they had had the final word, and there was nothing else to be said. This came at a price, if that is what you want to call it; the gameplay was drastically different from the original. Almost every negative comment I have heard has gone something like this: “it’s just not the same”. Unfortunately, it would seem, many fans had a hard time getting past this initial shock, to see the game behind it. A shame, really. Yes, it was different, but it was still fun. People who expected Dragon Age II to be a carbon copy of Origins were deluding themselves. That is simply not the way that Bioware operates. Despite this, however, I liked the gameplay, and specifically, the combat in Origins better. It set a far more realistic pace, which afforded the player a greater degree of control over the battle. Oh, and gore. Dragon Age II is gory, to the extreme, ridiculously so, in fact. There is no rational reason why someone should explode when they are hit with a sword, not unless the person wielding the sword happened to be Thor, or perhaps He-man. But yeah, like I said, no rational reason. In terms of weaponry, we have the standard RPG increasing order of magnitude system, same as in Origins, with a few improvements. Most notably, blade-staff, which are basically magic staffs, with, you guessed it, blades on the other end. This is the standard weapon for mages, and as a result mages are no longer defenseless in close combat. Bow-wielding rogues do something similar, using physical attacks until they can distance themselves from their opponents, and resume shooting. This is a vast improvement over the original. It also makes for some pretty awesome combat animations. I like to view the changes in the combat systems as a give and take situation, which is unfortunate, especially since it didn’t have to be. Is it really too much to ask for a developer to do everything right?

On the contrary, the UI was phenomenal. No more developing eye-strain while trying to discern the difference between two similar-looking items, no more spending several days polling experts in the field for consensus on how to get the bulky menu-system to do what you want it to. Unfortunately, it too suffers from problems of its own; minor problems for me, but apparently deal-breakers for others. With simplicity also seemed to come a lack of customizability, which is a traditional and rather integral part of the RPG experience. To put it succinctly, Dragon Age II is a great game, but not a great RPG, and as long as you know and accept that, I think you’ll have a good time playing it. All things considered, the gameplay gets a solid 7.0 out of 10.

The Setting

Here is the one area of the game that is difficult for me to review. I liked Dragon Age II, I really did, but why did the fine folks over at Bioware insist on using the same exact half-dozen maps over and over again? Does it really cost that much to hire some map makers, turn them loose, and give the game some desperately needed variety? This is not an exaggeration. After a few hours, I had actually memorized the layout of nearly every map in the entire game, and for a game of this scope, that is truly a travesty. I could have, perhaps, overlooked this too, were these few maps not largely prosaic. Maybe they thought the upgraded graphics, which, granted were, a massive improvement, would cover up this crime, but judging from people’s reactions, I think it’s safe to say that it didn’t work. Saved, in part, by the rich history and back-stories infused into nearly everything you can see and/or interact with, and by the fact that the graphics were actually good this time around, the setting receives a decent 5 out of 10.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Dragon Age II was an excellent game, if not Bioware’s best effort. It manages to largely avoid most clich├ęs from which other games in its genre suffer. It should be mentioned that I played it when it when the ink was just drying on the…disk. There have probably been numerous patches to address some of the game’s problems since I played it. Also, any improvement in graphics this made over its predecessor would be largely trivial. Origins was not a pretty game, however, the graphics in DA II actually hold up to scrutiny when compared to contemporary titles. Once again, I’ll give you the objective score, based on the analysis above, a solid, if disappointing 7.2 out of 10, as well as my subjective score of 8.9 out of 10. As I’ve said, I enjoyed it immensely, probably more than it deserved. I also look forward to the spades of extra downloadable content that Bioware has promised. As of writing, the price is still a rather absurd $60, so it’s probably worth waiting for some downloadable content and a few price drops before picking title up to play for yourself.

-J.D.

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